Friday, October 17, 2008

Feeling Soria For The Rays.

For those of you who still hold out hope that the Royals will one day see the light and move Joakim Soria to the rotation…I have bad news.

Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS almost certainly eliminated whatever fleeting chance there was that the Mexicutioner will become a starter one day. The Tampa Bay Rays were seven outs away from the World Series, with a seven run lead. They were then victimized by the greatest postseason comeback since 1929 (gee, like we haven’t seen enough references to 1929 this fall.)

Before my friend Nate Silver became the world’s most famous pollster, he used to write about baseball. One of his most-cited articles, in “Baseball Between The Numbers”, was an analysis of which teams are likeliest to win the crapshoot that we call the baseball playoffs.

What Nate found was that there were three things that were most correlated with a team’s ability to win in the playoffs. Those three things are:

1) Team defense, as measured by Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA);
2) The strikeout rate of the team’s pitching staff;
3) The quality of the team’s closer, as measured by WXRL.

To rephrase this: over the last 40 years (i.e. the divisional era), it is in fact true that good pitching beats good hitting in October. And the best way to beat good hitting in the playoffs is to keep your opponent’s batting average down. The way you do that is to prevent them from making contact (K rate), and when they do make contact, prevent them from getting a hit on balls in play (FRAA).

If good pitching beats good hitting, one pitcher matters above all: your closer. With more at stake in each game, managers are inclined to use their closers more aggressively, and all the extra off-days make it easier to run your closer out there. Plus, since every team is a playoff team, blowouts are rare and close games the norm, and the cool October weather also dampens scoring and increases the likelihood of a tie game.

Mariano Rivera has never appeared in more than 74 games in a season, and his career high in innings as a closer is 80.2 (he did throw 107.2 innings as a set-up man for John Wetteland in 1996). But since joining the Yankees in 1995, the team has played a total of 128 postseason games, and in just 128 games he’s made 76 appearances and thrown 117.1 innings. Game for game, Rivera has had twice as much impact in the postseason as he's made in the regular season.

These three aspects of a team are known as the “Secret Sauce”, and this year the Red Sox had the best Secret Sauce in the majors. L’Anaheim was 2nd, the Cubs 3rd, the White Sox 5th, the Rays 6th, the Phillies 12th, the Brewers 13th, and the Dodgers 19th.

The Rays had just the fifth-best Secret Sauce of any playoff team, even though they had the best defense in the majors, and the 10th-best strikeout rate. Why? Because their closer (Troy Percival, who’s not even on their active roster) ranked just 21st in the majors, the worst of any playoff team. The Rays have a deep bullpen; Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, and J.P. Howell were all among the best set-up guys in the game this year. But they don’t have a go-to guy, the kind of pitcher that you can call on when you’re in danger of losing a seven-run lead in the biggest game of your franchise’s career. The kind of guy who, protecting a three-run lead with six outs to go, won’t walk the leadoff batter on four pitches and then groove a fat fastball to the next hitter, as Wheeler did last night.

They don’t have a guy with nerves of steel. They don’t have the only sane man in an insane world. They don’t have the Mexicutioner. We do. And because of Soria, the Royals actually ranked 7th in the majors in Secret Sauce; the only non-playoff team to rank higher were the Blue Jays. The Royals didn’t have a good defense (18th in FRAA), and their strikeout rate was good but not great (11th in K rate). But Soria ranked 4th in the majors in WXRL, and probably would have ranked higher if the Royals hadn’t been forced to waste him to protect a bunch of four-run leads because tight games were tough to come by at certain points in the year.

I’ve said all season that the Royals are mis-using Soria, and I haven’t changed my mind. But I’m not nearly as convinced that the solution is to move him to the rotation. Between the loss of velocity and the injury risk (remember, he’s already had Tommy John surgery), I think there are real risks to asking him to throw 200 innings a year. But 90 innings a year? That he can handle.

I don’t want the Royals to transplant the Mexicutioner so much as I just want them to unshackle him. Let him pitch the eighth inning once in a while. Let him come in with men on base every now and then. A more liberal approach to using Soria is going to lead to more wins, and equally important, when the Royals are seven outs away from a playoff series win, they won’t have second thoughts about calling on Soria in the 7th inning and asking him to deliver us across the Red Sea into the Promised Land.

Two years ago the Rays were still the Devil Rays, which meant that instead of using the first pick in the Rule 5 draft for themselves, they sold the pick to Oakland (and Billy Beane, bless his heart, used the pick to select an outfielder named Ryan Goleski.) The Royals, picking second, took Soria. Over the last few years the Rays have made countless better decisions than the Royals have (including their one head-to-head trade of J.P. Howell for Joey Gathright). But on December 7th, 2006, the Royals got the better of them. After seeing how much the Rays missed having Soria at the back of their bullpen last night, and imagining how much agony their fans are going through this morning – I mean, is there any wonder why Dayton Moore is looking to leave his closer well enough alone?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Chapter 3.

Alright, break’s over.

On October 2nd I got the opportunity to attend Game 2 of the NLDS in Chicago, courtesy of my good friend Affan, a lifelong Cubs fan who had procured four very nice tickets for us and our wives. I had never been to a playoff game before, and my wife had never been to Wrigley Field before, a fact of which she has complained about for years. (Which has been a constant source of amusement for me given that my wife knows nothing about baseball, and cares even less.) You want a game, honey? Here’s a game. I felt a little sheepish about wasting a Cubs playoff ticket on someone who was going just to see and be seen, but what the hell – I figured I knew enough about baseball for the two of us.

We had seats way down the left field line, but right against the wall – my elbow was in fair territory when I rested my arm on the railing. We were about 25 feet farther down the line than where Bartman sat, and before the game I was trying to mentally prepare myself to make quick decisions about whether to go after a ball that was drifting into the first row based on which team was in the field (I’ve grown sort of fond of the Cubbies, and man, I hate the Frank McCourt-era Dodgers. Good for the Phillies.)

For the first 15 minutes, the atmosphere was absolutely electric. This wasn’t a crowd that was there to get drunk and sunburned, this was a crowd of Cub fans. There was a buzz that built to a crescendo with every pitch. And almost immediately after the game started, Affan and I were struck by the fact that everyone was in their seat – the usual crowds of people loitering around the concourse you see at every game, in every stadium, were not there. You know how at Arlington Cemetery, the tombstones line up in such a way that they’re in a straight line no matter what angle you’re looking at them from? That’s what Wrigley Field looked like – from every angle, you could see perfectly arranged lines of people sitting in the stands.

Unfortunately, that metaphor turned out to be a little too appropriate. The Cubs made three errors in the second, and Carlos Zambrano gave up five runs despite giving up just two well-struck balls, and poof! the excitement was gone. The atmosphere turned funereal in the middle innings; fans that just 30 hours before were certain this was their year sat silent and stunned. And by the 6th inning the mood changed again, this time to angry and sarcastic. In the first couple of innings the fans abused Manny Ramirez every time he came out to left field; by the top of the 7th the fans had turned all of their attention to their own Alfonso Soriano, calling him every name in the book.

The fans walked out a little later – those who stayed until the end – bitter, dejected, and down 2 games to none. Forty-eight hours later, their season would be over, but really most of them knew it was over that day. And it struck me how quickly even the best seasons can go bad, how the winningest team in the National League and one of the winning Cub teams of the last century can find its season prematurely over because of a little three-game slump.

I’ve been waiting for the Royals to return to the Promised Land for twenty years, and I can only imagine the elation that I’ll feel when it comes to pass. But if and when it happens, we ought to enjoy every fleeting moment, because it can pass quickly. The last time the Royals made the playoffs, they only let four teams out of 26 into the dance. Now it’s eight out of 30, which means making the playoffs is the easy part. An American League team has a 4/14 (28.6%) chance of making the playoffs, but once in, the odds of winning out is just 1/8 (12.5%). Brewer fans waited 26 years to make the playoffs, then had their dream end in less than a week – and now expect to lose their two best starters to free agency.

Right now, I want to see the playoffs in the worst possible way. But I’m sure that, once the Royals get there, I’ll want them to stay there as long as possible, not just in terms of that October, but for as many Octobers to come as possible. A fluke playoff appearance would be great and all, but what’s really great is to make the playoffs and know that it's not be a fluke.

I can’t express my admiration of the Tampa Bay Rays enough: that’s a team that’s a game away from the 2008 World Series in part because it wasn’t built for 2008 at all. As a general rule of thumb, franchises that try to build a long-term winner will find that success comes in the short term as well, and franchises that are building for short-term success will find that their term is shorter than they thought. (See also Chiefs, Kansas City.)

The Rays remind different people of different teams from years past, but they remind me of no team so much as the 1991 Braves, another team that had suffered through so many losing seasons that they were safely considered the laughingstock of the league; a team that had benefited from all that losing in the form of so many high draft picks; and a team that a few years before had replaced its inept leadership with people who actually knew what the hell they were doing. The 1991 Braves and 2008 Rays also represent probably the two most dramatic defensive makeovers in modern baseball history.

I remember the perception at the time was that the Braves were having one of those miracle seasons out of nowhere, but that few people expected them to have real staying power. But you looked at that team, with three brilliant young starters, a savvy manager, and a farm system that was spitting out talent every year, and you could tell that they weren’t just a great team, they were becoming a great franchise. I don’t think anyone expected 14 straight division titles or anything, but there was no reason to think that they were a flash in the pan either. Same thing with the Rays. It’s easy to look at the last 10 years and think that 2008 is just one of those crazy years where everything goes right for them, and that they’ll be back to looking up at the Red Sox and Yankees in the standings next year. Don’t make that mistake. Just because the transformation in the Rays is sudden doesn’t mean it’s not real.

That’s the transformation I want to see in Kansas City. The 2003 season was great fun, but even when they were winning and in first place it felt like a dream, and the whole season we just waited for the dream to end. Rob Neyer and I were at a Rockies game during the SABR convention just before the All-Star Break, and an acquaintance asked what we thoughts the odds were that the Royals would make the playoffs. (The Royals were 4.5 games up at the time.) Rob answered 15%; I answered 25%. “Really? You’ve got a five-game lead!” he said. “Yeah,”, we both replied, “but they’re the Royals.”

I want the Royals to win, but more than that, I want the Royals to return to being the sort of team that when someone says, “they’re the Royals,” it’s a compliment. The Rays haven’t just won a lot of games this year, they’ve changed how people think when someone mentions their name. The team went so far as to change their name; “Devil Rays” still connotes a sense of incorrigible, LaMar-ian stupidity, but “Rays” makes you think of the little kid on the block that everyone used to beat up on, but who’s suddenly hit puberty and is starting to wail on any and all comers, and while none of the older kids know if he’s been taking boxing lessons or if his parents hired him a personal trainer or if he’s just been lucky, no one wants to be the one to find out. (I’ll take “tortured sports analogies” for $800, Alex.)

The Royals had a good year, but realistically their outlook for 2009 and 2010 hasn’t changed much at all; if anything, the odds that they can sneak up and take the division in 2010 has probably declined a little simply because neither Alex Gordon nor Billy Butler had the true breakout season that the Royals need them to have. Dayton Moore says changes are coming, and I welcome them. But I don’t want him to lose sight of the big picture in the process.

The farm system is improving, and more importantly, the culture of player development is improving. The Royals are spending big money in the draft, they’re active in Latin America, they’ve got more minor league teams than everyone else. But the first changes that Moore planted when he took over will take five years to bear fruit, and right now we’re barely two years in. And I don’t want us to lose sight of the big picture, because for all the ink and electrons wasted on Jose Guillen and Ross Gload this year, the reality is that we all should be talking about Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer and even Danny Duffy and Yowill Espinal, because those are the guys who are the centerpiece of Moore’s core strategy: the strategy to build a long-term winning franchise in Kansas City, whether it comes in 2009 or 2011 or 2013.

If Dayton Moore is penning a new book in the history of the Royals, then Chapter 1 ended when Buddy Bell was let go after the 2007 season. Chapter 2 ended this September. Chapter 3 opens with Moore vowing to separate the guys he needs to keep from the guys he needs to get rid of. It’s been a promising book so far, but we’re still a couple of chapters away from the really juicy stuff. Let’s keep the faith, and keep reading.